Together, we make a beautiful bench

A few weeks ago I went to see Don Julin and Billy Strings, a bluegrass duo that’s been drawing big crowds in my town. (If you haven’t heard them, I’ll wait right here while you get over to You Tube now and listen between 1:40 and 2:40.)

They put on a great live show. More than their talent and the tunes, though, I found myself marveling at their collaboration.

I don’t work very well in groups. At work, I can be part of a sequence of people collectively responsible for a project, handing off text, say, to the graphic designer. But equally sharing the task and the responsibility for the outcome? Not my style. In our “team” focused culture, however, that’s often considered lamentable, so I didn’t talk much about it.

Then came the Benchmark project.

Melissa Johnson of Blackbird Arts in Traverse City puts together: 1) Grant funding, 2) a writer (me), 3) an artist (Marcia Borell), 4) a teacher and class (Lorraine Laird’s Traverse City East Middle School class) and 5) a bench.

Last spring, the class read my book, Plover Pilgrimage, about a 12-year-old autistic boy who comes to northern Michigan to see the endangered piping plover. I visited the classroom to discuss what they found most meaningful. Marcia then led them to visually depict that on the bench, which was unveiled Friday on a busy downtown corner of Traverse City.

Teacher Lorraine Laird, in sunglasses, unveils the bench to her students.

Teacher Lorraine Laird, in sunglasses, unveils the bench to her students.

Here it is in use. I’m standing at left behind it, Marcia’s in the middle, and Lorraine is at right. Some of the students and my own kids are sitting on it. I’m counting at least a half-dozen collaborators.

How many collaborators can you count?

Smiles all around.

And that’s not to mention the thousands of people who will use it in the future — waiting for the bus that stops on that corner, waiting for a table at the busy restaurant behind it, pausing while shopping downtown. They’ll sit, read the plaque, and momentarily make a connection between their lives, art, and northern Michigan’s natural environment, which inspired the art.

After trying it on for size, maybe collaboration is my style, after all.

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